JI Extra: A New Direction For KU

New Kansas football coach Turner Gill has fond memories of Lawrence from his 17 years at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln – four as a quarterback and 13 as an assistant coach.

And why wouldn't he? As a player (1980-83), his squads went 4-0 against KU. They outscored the Jayhawks by a combined 204-28. I'll save you the trouble: that's an average score of 51-7.

His coaching career wasn't much different. Turner Gill saw his alma mater go 13-0 against the hapless Jayhawks with an average margin of victory of 30.5 points during his tenure an assistant to Bugeater legend Dr. Tom Osborne,

So when Mark Mangino resigned as KU coach last December, Gill was eager to learn more about the position – and not just so he could reminisce about those annual beat-downs. Every time the 'Husker team bus stopped in Lawrence, he thought about the tremendous football potential KU had.

"I remember thinking, this would be a good place to coach," Gill recalled. "You saw a beautiful campus; you sensed that it was just a great town. So, it was always in the back of my mind that if the opportunity presented itself, this would be something I'd seriously consider."

He did more than consider it; he jumped at it. Gill was announced as KU's new head coach December 13th. Since then, things have been, well, different around the Anderson Football Complex.

Gill smiles, and it's contagious. He's good at it. He does it a lot. Positivity radiates from the 1983 Heisman Trophy runner-up. Hand him lemons; he makes lemonade. Throw him in a room full of horse manure; he'll look for the pony.

Everything he says sound like a great idea. Gill's voice has an edge, a passion to it. Not the kind of passion that makes a vein pop out on his forehead; it's the kind of passion you want to be a part of. And right now, he'll tell anyone who'll listen how excited he is about being the head coach at Kansas.

The biggest change, however, may be the new approach taken by the head coach when it comes to people. Gill's style is markedly different than the one to which KU fans had become accustomed, and it's intended to extend off the field into the training room, into the classroom and onto wherever life may take the young men who come to play for him.

"As we look at society – and this isn't just about football – when we talk about getting people to perform on a consistent basis, you have to get to know them in a deeper way. We need to know why they are the way they are, so we need to ask deeper questions," Gill said.

Could it be that Gill was talking about...relationships? With his players?

Yep. And then some.

"Tom Osborne taught me all about building relationships with people. Not only players but, really, the support staff: the sports performance people, trainers, administrative assistants, the equipment people, the video people," Gill explained. "Let them know how valued they are and why they are (valued). He taught me all about making sure that everyone who has an opportunity to make an impact on your student-athletes knows (they're valued). All the X's and O's, I took from (Osborne), but more importantly, I learned how to take care of people."

The new coach has some very definite ideas on how he and his coaches are going to bring this about.

"When you say 'building relationships,' it's about listening," Gill said. "We're going to take the time (to listen), as a coaching staff. We want our players and our staff to come and see us. We are available, and we are approachable."

Once the team starts to meet on a regular basis, players are going to stand up in front of their teammates, introduce themselves and, in Gill's words, "let everyone know who you are."

"I'm going to ask questions. One question I would have them answer is, 'Tell us who's the most influential person in your life and why?' By doing that, we're going to get to know who this person in a deeper way."

Gill asserts that once student-athletes get to know each other on more than a superficial level, they'll find that they have more in common than they have differences, regardless of the diversity of their backgrounds.

"We all know, the first thing we look for are the differences in people," he said. "You're always looking at the outside: parents or where they came from or things of that nature.

"But once (a player) starts telling his story," the coach continued, "then you understand him in a better way, and now we're connected. We're not trying to pull ourselves apart; we're trying to pull ourselves together."

And it's not an exercise for just the players; the coaches are going to do it, too.

"We're gonna talk. We're gonna have a good dialogue, a good conversation. Every day, we're gonna take five or 10 minutes to have a student-athlete or a coach stand up and talk about the how's and the why's," Gill said.

In an era when the label "player's coach" gets bandied about, all this relationship stuff may sound like fluff. It isn't for Gill, though. This approach to players – to everyone – is part of who he is. If it wasn't, he said, he wouldn't do it this way. This is how he did it at the University of Buffalo, his previous coaching stop. The Bulls went from one of the worst teams in the country to Mid-American Conference champions in just three seasons under Gill.

"We did all those things, and it brought guys together," he said.

This is not, however, just about football. The three-time all-Big 8 quarterback is always looking at a much bigger picture.

"I'm trying to teach (student-athletes) about life, about marriage, about relationships here on this earth besides football," Gill said, the enthusiasm and passion in his voice kicking up a notch. "Obviously, it's going to help us on the football field, but it's really going to help us throughout our life."

Gill said he was pleased by the level of commitment KU had made to football in recent years, but he wasn't shocked because of the man in charge, Kansas athletics director Lew Perkins.

"(The commitment is) just great to see. It's about leadership: making a commitment and knowing how important that is for the University of Kansas and the State of Kansas and, of course, for our alumni," he said.

Gill is grateful to Perkins for the opportunity to coach at a great school in a Bowl Championship Series conference. He's also eager to work for his new boss.

"No question about it: I owe it all to him," the coach said. "We were friends for about three years before this opportunity presented itself, and (Perkins) was something of a mentor and a confidant."

The more people Gill talked to about Perkins, the more he knew that he wanted to work for the Kansas AD.

"(Perkins) and I are very similar in our vision and what we love to do, and ultimately, we're both all about the student-athlete."

Gill's glasses aren't so rose-colored, though, as to ignore the elephant in the locker room. He's fully aware that he's put himself in the center of what was a messy situation back in October and November. He knows he's got work to do to, not only to snap a seven-game losing streak on the field but to bring stability back to the program and repair some burnt bridges off it. He plans to do this by bringing leaders into the fold.

"No doubt, we've got to build some trust and confidence," Gill acknowledged. "Obviously, you have to get some people with talent, but you also have to get people who know how to lead. That's what we're trying to do: bring in leaders, not followers. When they've been a leader, they've got a better understanding of the big picture. Once people start to understand the bigger picture, that's when people can rise up and play extremely well and play with confidence and not lookin' back. Always lookin' forward. You always have to have confidence in your ability and your team and the program.

And what does he tell players who want to talk about problems with his predecessor?

"I tell 'em to move on. It's that way in football; it's that way in life. It you're dwelling on the past, you're slowing us down. This is a new beginning, and I'm welcoming anyone who wants to move forward with us."

Those are meaningful words to players and staff who, just a few months ago, were watching the wheels fall off a program for which history was supposed to be waiting. Remember, though: it's never just about football with Turner Gill. There's always more to it.

"That's our job: to help these young men be complete young men and reach their full potential as young men. I take that all in the context of being head football coach here at the University of Kansas.

"We're all connected as a nation and a society," Gill went on, "so we have an obligation to train these young men the best we can not just in football but for life. And that's what we're gonna do. That's what we're all about."

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